Friday Poll Watch: What if there's a scandal and the media doesn't report it? Lessons from North Carolina

Quick: What causes a politician's popularity to tank?

A controversial vote, weak performance, general voter unrest -- all can cause poll numbers to drift downward.

But for your approval ratings to really bottom out, it takes a scandal.

John Edwards knows this. So does former N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, a once popular politician who, after months of being dogged about campaign finance problems, finds his approvals at a shockingly low 16%.

But who creates political scandals? The media, of course (often thanks to intel provided by operatives from the other side).

Which is why it's more than a bit odd how Ben Niolet, a conservative political writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, decided to cover news of Easley's popularity nosedive this week. In a Feb. 23 post, Niolet noted the ex-guv's latest poll stats, and then wrote:

The polls [sic] results are hardly surprising, given the steady beat of stories about federal and state investigations into Easley's administration.

That link Niolet included on the word "beat" is, surprisingly, to the News & Observer's own full-court coverage of the Easley scandal.

Niolet's post is more than strangely self-referential: I think it also points to deeper problems with how the N&O and media cover political scandals and polls.

First, isn't it a bit unsavory for the N&O to take credit for causing the demise of Easley's popularity? I realize the old-school mantra of "we report, you decide" is quaint in today's post-objective media world.

But the N&O's approach, which apparently amounts to "we told you what to think about Easley, and you believed us!" seems to be taking things too far -- or at least they should be more open about their agenda.

Second: If the N&O really does believe it deserves credit for bringing down Easley, what does that say about their coverage of other politicians?

For example: Is the reason that North Carolina's Republican candidates for governor aren't also as unpopular as rocking chairs at a cat convention because they haven't done anything wrong -- or because the N&O didn't report it?

That isn't a rhetorical question. As Facing South reported last October, in the final hours of the state hearings into Gov. Easley -- closely followed by Niolet and the N&O -- Democratic lawyers produced evidence that three of Easley's Republican challengers were likely guilty of failing to report campaign flights, the very issue that prompted the Easley investigation.

To recap, an affidavit from Anthony Asbridge, an IRS investigator for 22 years, documented likely campaign reporting failures by at least three GOP gubernatorial candidates:

* State legislator Patrick Ballantine, Republican nominee for governor in 2004, "conducted an eight (8) city campaign tour by airplane, visiting, among others, the town of Wilmington, Manteo, and Greenville." The flights apparently were never reported.

* Fred Smith, a 2008 GOP gubernatorial candidate, "announced his intention to visit each of the one hundred (100) counties in the State" by plane, and apparently did so. But his campaign didn't report the flights, something he was required to do even if he owned the plane.

* Bill Graham was also a Republican candidate in 2008 and made over 150 flights on a Beech aircraft. Yet Asbridge's investigation found "no report of any disbursement for the payment of air travel ... nor any report of any in-kind contribution" for the flights.

These bombshells barely registered in the News & Observer's (or the rest of the media's)  wall-to-wall coverage of the Easley hearings. No blaring headlines. No award-seeking investigative series. No personal swipes chalking up the GOP's apparent campaign violations to a misguided sense of "privilege" and "arrogance."

In short, no scandal.

So is it any surprise that Ballantine, Smith and Graham aren't now reading dispatches from Niolet that their approval ratings are in the toilet?

The issue came up again this week, when the state Democratic Party held a press conference drawing attention to apparent inconsistencies in the campaign reports of another Republican candidate, Charlotte's Pat McCrory.

But in two different news stories, the N&O (Niolet again) downplayed the allegations as merely "the political equivalent of a returned serve" to GOP charges against current Gov. Beverly Perdue (D).

The obvious subtext: Move along, nothing to see here but partisan bickering. Certainly nothing as interesting as Easley, whose transgressions -- while legally similar -- somehow suggested a more profound moral failing.

Just to be clear: The point isn't that the GOP's campaign reporting problems get Easley off the hook, or that two wrongs make a right.

The issue is that, if the News & Observer truly believes in their power to shape public opinion and influence the fate of politicians and politics -- and they've made no secret about that -- shouldn't they use that power more even-handedly and responsibly?